Particle Dreams and Keif Llama: Xeno-Tech
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Last updated: 15 November 1997
Particle Dreams #1-6 (Oct 86-Nov 87) and Keif Llama: Xeno-Tech #1-6 (Sept 88-Feb 89)
by Matt Howarth, Fantagraphics

Howarth's specialty is writing and drawing the weird, particularly where comics are concerned. His most famous invention is the loopy fantasy world of Bugtown, as seen in his comics Those Annoying Post Brothers and Savage Henry. For my money, though, his best efforts have been his science fiction effort, best embodied by the Keif Llama stories which appeared in the two series listed above.

Keif Llama (I think pronounced "Keef Yama") is a young woman who works as a Xeno-Tech, essentially someone who works out problems between species. (I think she was, in fact, named after SF author Keith Laumer, whose character Retief is vaguely similar.) Particle Dreams was an anthology magazine by Howarth which featured several Keif stories and various other odds-and-ends. Keif is clearly well-regarded in these stories, and quite competent even if she doesn't always "win". Her challenges include determining what the "worms" are that are bothering the huge native sentients in an asteroid that a human company is mining; surviving a criminals' sargasso planet while accompanied by a friendly alien who nonetheless claims to be a vampire, and mediating between humans and aliens on a water-drenched planet.

The Keif stories also take place against a pecular backdrop; aeons ago, the then-prevailing interstellar government - the Galatian Concourse - was fighting a war against Her Insane Majesty's Empire, which seemed to be simply a huge fleet which cannibalized whole planets as it set out to bring about the heat death of the universe. Howarth writes a handful of stories set in this universe (the Mad Empress is quite a sight), and they're quite entertaining, if decidedly surreal. By Keif's time, both the Empire and the Concourse are things of dust, though it seems likely that the Concourse won (seeing as there's still a universe). It's an interesting backdrop, although quite sketchy in many ways.

(Oh, yeah; Particle Dreams also features two short comic strips intended to be cut out and pieced together as a moebius strip - a never-ending comic. Quite clever, really.)

Keif Llama: Xeno-Tech is quite different; it clearly takes place at the beginning of Keif's career, when she is a promising government employee, but still extremely naive. Nonetheless, she's already caught the eye of others with her skills, and in this series she works with several human and alien employers early in the series before finally having her wish fulfilled to be sent out to the rim to interact almost entirely with aliens.

The last three issues of the series are the most interesting: On her flight out, she and a member of the ship's crew are temporarily trapped in a "null-space", and when they get out they find that everyone else on the ship is dead. What happened? Then Keif arrives at Web-Base Edison Blue where she's forced to fend for her own day-to-day survival in an environment where she can't get a job, but still have high daily taxes to pay. (Keif: "No free lunch... okay." Alien: "Lunch is cheap, being Llama. Air is expensive.") To get rid of the pesky human, the Base's command sends her out on a courier mission and has her ship sabotaged, but she finds herself stranded in a space sargasso, fighting for her life against a remnant battlesuit from Her Majesty's Mad Empire.

Howarth really lets himself go, drawing all sorts of bizarre aliens, many of which are offensive in some way or other to humans, and many of which find humans offensive to them. Howarth expertly makes some subtle points about prejudice and how we view others. (Alien: "Your bravery is very impressive for one with only two legs.") Howarth's art is more detailed in Particle Dreams, but he has such a great sense for design and motion that the more abstract renderings of Keif Llama are themselves interesting.

Unfortunately, both series are relatively hard to find, although not impossible. They're both worth searching out.

Note: Matt Howarth dropped me e-mail to say that people interested in getting info on how to order issues of Particle Dreams and Keif Llama should send an SASE for a catalog to:

Matt Howarth
P.O. Box 28325
Philadelphia, PA 19149

hits since 24 August 2000.

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